“Something I Need to Tell You” by Erin Murphy

21 March 2011 on Nonfiction   Tags:

The homemade rolls at the Chesterfield Tea Room were yeasty heaps of buttery heaven, kneaded and punched and baked by the staff whose uniforms matched the white linen table cloths and napkins. Upstairs lived the wealthy elderly white women of Richmond who dined under the restaurant's antique chandeliers. They were not the kind of women to cook for themselves. They were the kind of women who “took their meals in the dining room.” Despite its adornments, the Chesterfield was quite reasonably priced. You could get a three-course southern home-style meal for $6, which was inexpensive even in the mid-1980s. So one rainy Thursday evening, my friend Carrie and I—our driver's licenses freshly laminated— drove downtown for dinner.

Carrie, modeling herself after Madonna, had long blond hair that she spiked up in the front. She was partial to leggings under skirts, and layers of knit shirts and sweaters with gaping neck holes that exposed a shoulder. A few months earlier, we'd gone with a group of other girls to New York for the weekend. We'd piled into a single hotel room and spent the night dancing in the three-story club frequented by Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. That was the year of the first budget airline, and for $29 each way, we had flown to the city from Virginia Beach, where we stayed overnight before our early morning flight. It was at the beach that Carrie met a boy. Like the other Madonna, my friend was a virgin. As she put it, she was “saving herself” for marriage. She and the boy dressed in each other's clothes and romped around the off-season beach town until dawn.

That this boy would become her husband we didn't yet know. We were high school seniors. A part-time job and reading assignments for Ms. Saunders' Honors World Literature course consumed the bulk of my hours. Carrie spent most of her time tending to her invalid father, who was in his sixties when he'd married her much younger mother. They had since divorced, and it seemed he had been on the verge of death all the years I'd known Carrie. When he finally died later that year, Carrie made a quilt of his flannel pajamas. She said it smelled like him.

At the Chesterfield, we put our napkins on our laps. We sipped our iced tea. And when Carrie leaned forward and said, “There's something I need to tell you,” I remember thinking this was still part of our grown-up role-playing.

She was nine. It was a family reunion. She'd wandered away from the crowd to a nearby neighbor's swing set. A man—a stranger—lured her into the woods. Her family members—absorbed in their hamburgers and horseshoes—could not hear her screams.

If I were writing fiction and said what I'm about to say, you would tell me it's not believable. Too convenient, you would say. But here it is: just weeks before my dinner with Carrie, Ms. Saunders—in one of her periodic rants that took flight from the books we were discussing—removed her reading glasses and gave us advice.

“If you are ever having dinner with a close friend and he or she tells you something important, something that is difficult and painful to tell,” she said, pausing at the podium to wipe the air with her long arms, “here is what you don't do: you don't finish your meal. You get up from the table, leave your food, leave all of your money behind if you have to, and you go somewhere private and give that person your undivided attention.”

I remember at the time thinking that Ms. Saunders must have been speaking from recent personal experience, but she didn't elaborate. Repositioning her glasses on the edge of her nose, she returned to Madame Bovary and asked “So where were we?”

Our meals were served: country fried steak seeped in grease, three different kinds of venereal disease, macaroni and cheese with a thick scab of broiled cheddar, pelvic exam with a full-sized speculum, Hanover tomatoes stewed in their own juices, a girl's squeaky replies on the witness stand, the clinking of refilled iced tea glasses, the judge nudging her to Speak up, please, another basket of steaming rolls, the body weighted like a plumb line, chocolate pecan brownies with fresh whipped cream, the parole hearing, the fumbling with check and tip, the deep heat of shame—hers, and all these years later, mine.

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